Tell me your, “we’re friends, I don’t need a contract” story and I’ll tell you mine. It’s ok, we’ve all got one. For some reason, this is a lesson that I, and you, and pretty much everyone seems to need to learn again and again.

It should be a no brainer; when you agree to do work in exchange for money, a written contract should outline the terms of the deal. That way you know what you are making, or paying if you’re the one doing the hiring, and there is no grey area. Keeping things straightforward and professional, with clearly outlined terms sounds so easy. So why does it get swept aside more often that not? Laziness, inexperience, or just the uncomfortable feeling of having to advocate for oneself are all reasons why I’ve let a contract fall by the wayside. A contract is one of those things that you will really wish you had when you don’t have it, am I right? Say it with me now: “I will never work without a contract again.” And repeat.

Here are the top three painful memories . . . I mean learning experiences. . . from when I’ve let contracts, both the details of them and just plain having one, slip through the cracks. Read on and be glad that I made these mistakes so that you don’t have to.

1.    It’s Called Digital Manipulation, Karen.

This seems small now, but it taught me a good lesson about the importance of detailed contract wording. I did a fantastic brand shoot for a company that sells riding apparel and helmets. I had my standard contract signed and on file and everything was all good. It’s understood that brands will use photos produced from this kind of shoot in their marketing materials, which is also all good. I got used to seeing the photos from this particular shoot out and about in digital and print quite often. Also all good! Then one day I noticed that in one of my images used many times before by this company, the piping on a helmet was a new color. I had to go back and look at my original photo to be sure and yep. Same photo, new piping.

Digitally altering a brand photo to represent a new product is low key fraud. As the photographer, you’re the only one who should be editing your photo, no matter who you’ve sold it to. It’s one thing if the client returns with an edit request on a photo you’ve shot for them. Or informs you of a minor edit being made. It’s another thing entirely if they digitally alter your photo without your knowledge, with the express purpose of selling a product based on that photo. But, my contract at the time was too broad, and didn’t specify any terms of digital alteration. I couldn’t do much other than scream internally, “never again!”

2.    I See What You Did There.

My next mistake was also to do with contract wording, but this time it was regarding a contract presented to me for ongoing work engagement. It proved the point that even when you’re working on a contract, you can still lose. In hindsight, when I was presented with an overly wordy, complicated contract outlining the terms of that working agreement, I should have sent it straight to a lawyer and put the brakes on, instead of thinking that all those words seemed kinda ok and jumping into the work full steam ahead.

What I had actually signed was a complicated way of not getting paid the full amount I was owed. Suddenly, after a long period of time working under the terms of this contract, I was told I would be paid thousands of dollars less. This was a particularly rude surprise because I’d come to depend on what I was getting paid, and had carried merrily along without a thought that I’d ever hear the words “you’re doing a great job, we can’t pay you X.” When I went back and looked hard at the payment terms in the contract, the wording was wrapped in just enough snake oil salesman language to tip the balance of any disagreement in pay out of my favor. Hindsight, that old friend, stung me again. I should have taken the time to understand the exact terms of the contract before signing, or starting the work.

3.    We’re Friends, I Trust You

Listen, I have a lot of friends in this industry who I also do work with, but friendship and trust should have nothing to do with a working agreement. A friendship is an emotional contract, a business agreement is a written contract, and the two should always be clearly delineated. Working without a contract, on an enormous project, that represented a new partnership with a longtime friend added up to perhaps my most expensive mistake ever. During the lead up to the project when that tiny voice in the back of my head kept insisting on getting the agreement in writing, the friend was too busy to connect about it, kept answering emails with ‘let’s just talk about it’, and filled conversations with the minutia of the project. I went ahead and did the work, because hey, I trusted the long friendship that had led up to the partnership, and I lent on that feeling rather than the more uncomfortable one of insisting on a written contract before any work was done. When that now former friend backed out of the deal, there I was, kicking myself, because all I had left was a friendship that was worth exactly zero dollars. Without a contract, I couldn’t even make an argument beyond “but you said. . .”

Never, and I really mean it, never again!!